Following the Legal Education and Training Review, we look at the future of continuing professional development.

What’s the purpose of CPD again? So asked one solicitor during the recent Legal Education and Training Review (LETR). ‘I can’t remember,’ he said, ‘whether it’s to learn something or to show you’ve spent 16 hours a year pretending to learn something to satisfy the sort of thing that you ought to be doing.’

It was, he stressed, a serious question. And it is one which practitioners will be asked to consider as the Solicitors Regulation Authority decides how it should reform the current continuing professional development regime.

The SRA is due to publish its first policy statement on the LETR report, followed by an ‘active programme of stakeholder engagement’ over the next year to gauge the profession’s views on how best to ensure ‘continuing competence’.

One immediate response may be – why more consultations? But the LETR was never intended to be the last word on education and training reform. Commissioned by the SRA, Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards, its aim was to provide evidence needed for policymaking.

That meant its recommendations were inevitably general and now need to be honed to fit the particular demands of solicitors, says John Wotton, chair of the Law Society’s education and training committee.

‘It is also notable how few firms and individual practitioners actually contributed evidence to the review,’ he says. So, he adds, before the SRA decides anything it is important to elicit their views, particularly those of firms which will have to implement what is likely to be a much more entity-focused scheme.

A brief résumé of the LETR’s CPD recommendations finds concerns about relevance and quality, but no appetite for the sort of periodic revalidation scheme called for by the Legal Services Consumer Panel.

Other professions have chosen this route. Following the uproar over standards of care, the 670,000-strong nursing and midwifery profession is considering a revalidation process involving a three-year cycle and patient, colleague and employer feedback. A similar system carried out every five years was introduced last year for doctors.

But the LETR said the case for a similar scheme for the legal sector was ‘unproven at this stage’, given the scope for improving CPD. Instead, it favoured recasting CPD so practitioners have to ‘plan, implement, evaluate and reflect’ annually on training needs and learning.

The review also identified clear skills and knowledge gaps – particularly professional ethics and legal values, commercial awareness and a need for enhanced writing and communication skills – but left it to the regulators to decide what, if any, should be made a mandatory part of any CPD regime.

What does this mean for practitioners and providers, particularly in light of continuing pressures on training budgets?

Any scheme will need to be sufficiently flexible, says Wotton, to work well for large firms, which make a huge investment in training, for firms operating in the publicly funded field where training budgets are very tight, and for small firms with no in-house resources.

‘I don’t think the system is ideal at present because the focus is almost exclusively on hours and what form they take, rather than relevance and value,’ he says. ‘The way forward, as the SRA envisages it, is that a CPD plan will emerge from an individual reflecting with their firm on what will be most relevant and beneficial at that stage of their career.’

Pamela Henderson, senior lecturer in law at Nottingham Law School, led the review of CPD for the SRA which was fed into the LETR. The problem with the current system, she says, is that it emphasises compliance without necessarily assuring competence. She welcomes the LETR proposal that there should be an outcomes-focused approach.

However, she says that any revised framework must address issues of cost, time and location which are significant barriers to effective CPD, adding that the LETR team was ‘wise’ to caution against a reaccreditation requirement at this stage, given the likely cost and resource demands involved.

What struck Trevor Hellawell, head of law programmes at BPP Professional Development, were the comments made during the LETR’s consultation phase that ‘most’ CPD had fallen into a tick-box mindset and that providers saw delegates as ‘cash cows’ – come in, sit down, sign the form and go away – with little thought given to whether the course was of any use.

Parabis Law

Organising CPD across a multi-disciplinary alternative business structure is like running an internal training company, says solicitor Jason O’Malley, head of learning and development for the Parabis Group.

The group’s legal firms and professional services companies employ 3,000 people. O’Malley has a team of four in learning and development, two doing knowledge management, five IT trainers and is in the process of integrating a separate training team from another part of the business.

There are 1,200 working on the law firm side. Parabis Law LLP specialises in insurance-related work, trading as Plexus and Greenwoods, which do defendant work, Cogent, which does claimant work, and Acumen, the costs advisory arm.

With so many mergers and acquisitions, the starting point has been creating core competencies for staff at every level, from secretarial to partner and business head.

‘We run a programme for solicitors and anyone giving legal advice,’ he explains. ‘This gives them core updates in their practice area and gives them their four hours’ face-to-face training.’

The challenge is providing training across 30 offices, as well as for staff in South Africa and Scotland. Parabis is investing in a new learning management system which will deliver compliance, health and safety, and large aspects of IT training. It is also investing in Go To Training, a web-based system where people can log in to live training sessions at their desk.

Formerly director of BPP’s Professional Development Programmes, O’Malley says it ran 470 events last year. Most solicitors are quite traditional and prefer something interactive, he notes, ‘which is why we aren’t going to try to force too much e-learning on fee-earners’.

In addition to the online training, Parabis runs a compulsory course on professional ethics and compliance delivered by its head of compliance. ‘We have ramped that up since becoming an ABS because you can be subject to a fine of up to £250m for non-compliance,’ he says.

O’Malley believes the SRA should keep the minimum hours’ requirement ‘but it should have more flexibility, so the more senior you get the more activities, such as business development, should count towards your CPD’.

‘That criticism stung because that is not how organisations like ours view CPD,’ he says. ‘But I can see that in the last-minute October rush people will go on any course. There are wrongs on both sides over the prescription of a set number of hours without any thought being given to the quality of the learning experience.’

He believes it would be consistent with the SRA’s approach to regulation to move to a statement of outcomes rather than be any more prescriptive. This would put the responsibility for evaluating CPD back on to practitioners by making sure they can demonstrate, if required, that they have achieved some form of development.

The idea that practitioners should plan their CPD more actively is welcomed by the Law Society’s recently redesigned CPD Centre, currently used by about 28,000 lawyers. ‘Our system was set up to do just that,’ explains publishing manager Stephen Honey. ‘It has functions that let you assess your training needs, set yourself development goals – and remind you if you haven’t achieved them – record all your training and reflect on both individual courses and on your CPD over the whole year.’

It is currently designed for individuals. But with the emphasis likely to be on entities taking more responsibility for employees’ CPD, the centre is looking at introducing firm access so the person responsible for training can check what staff are doing.

For the SRA, two key issues up for debate are the minimum number of hours requirement and the accredited provider element.

The Law Society had called for an increase from 16 to 24 hours a year as a minimum requirement. The LETR recognised greater input was required but left the question whether there should be a minimum requirement rather more open.

‘I think that it would require a very robust scheme with very effective auditing to make sure doing away with the minimum-hours requirement wouldn’t lead to people and firms skimping on CPD,’ says Wotton. ‘My own view is that, in the short- to medium-term, keeping a minimum hours requirement is helpful to everybody.’

CPD time is certainly a ‘very crude measure’, says Natalie Jobling, chair of the C&I Group’s training committee. ‘But, on the other hand, hours can be objectively and easily measured and audited. A minimum-time requirement may also be a useful negotiating tool for an in-house lawyer arguing for a training budget from their finance director. Some lawyers also struggle to find relevant training at the right level, which would cause problems whether you look at hours or outcomes.’

Rob Farquharson is managing director of Wilmington’s legal division, which includes CLT. He is not sure practitioners would be comfortable with a CPD regime based just on outcomes. ‘Solicitors like rules,’ he says. ‘That is the world they work in, and they want clear guidance about what knowledge and skills they should have at the different stages of their careers.’

For Wotton, the approved-provider regime should also be looked at seriously. ‘It is a terribly artificial system where providers have to get specific certification from every regulator,’ he says. ‘In my area of competition law, there is no difference in practice between the seminars and lectures I attend which count towards CPD because they have been put on by approved providers and those which don’t. It would be convenient if they all counted.’

Goode practice

The Centre for Commercial Law Studies is holding a dinner on 9 October to celebrate the 80th birthday of founder Professor Sir Roy Goode QC.

It is more than three decades since Goode set up the centre as part of the School of Law at Queen Mary, University of London, to develop a body of knowledge and skills in commercial law.

The centre has built up a range of flexible evening and distance learning professional courses, seminars, conferences and workshops that count towards CPD points, as do its LLM modules.

Goode, who spent 17 years in private practice as a solicitor before turning to academia, set up the centre in 1980 because he felt the academic side of commercial law was not being taken seriously enough.

‘What we did that was different was to explore fundamental concepts,’ he explains. ‘What is the nature of property? What is a floating charge? People were frightened to engage with problems that hadn’t come before the courts in case they got it wrong. But, by understanding the underlying concepts, you can apply them to new situations.’

He is concerned that ‘we are in a tick-box era where people are free to earn their points by going on courses which have nothing to do with their practice area.’ But he adds: ‘Good practitioners are still keenly interested in deeply theoretical concepts.

The one thing we have always insisted on is that the academic merit of a course comes first. If there is a way of making money by dumbing down, we are not interested.’

Another option for the SRA, if it follows the LETR recommendations, would be to give greater recognition to the value of informal learning. Henderson says this would be a ‘very positive opportunity.  There is evidence that informal and on-the-job learning can be highly effective. It is also cheap, efficient and convenient when compared with attending an external course, not to mention being specifically tailored to the needs of the individual’.  

Practitioners still value high-quality, specialist and niche provision of courses, she says, although the cost can be prohibitive for some. ‘However, liberating individuals from the need to accumulate accredited points would release limited time and budgets to devote to higher-quality offerings and a wider variety of more useful activities.’

So, with change in the air, how are providers gearing up?

Both the Solicitors Group, another big CPD provider, and the CPD Centre have seen increased demand for more training on commercial awareness.

Honey says the CPD Centre is also developing equality and diversity training as well as webinars specifically for in-house lawyers, including how to manage external lawyers. More than 1,000 people registered for its July webinar introducing the new Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme, with more training for the scheme due in October.

Professor Scott Slorach, vice-president (education) of the University of Law, says feedback from firms is that training in technical, black-letter law is a mature market and demand is for more executive education, including commercial awareness, and interpersonal and client skills.

‘We are putting together a matrix of those skills and looking at them in terms of the different stages of someone’s career, from newly qualified to three years, three to six years, and then partner level.’

The university is also building issues of professional ethics into the broader aspects of client relationships and decision-making so they are seen in context because, Slorach says, ‘in the heat of battle it is easy to lose sight of where the lines are’.

The C&I Group has recently reorganised its training support, allowing it to cut the price of courses. ‘Our new processes also mean that we can react much more quickly to hot topics or requests for training,’ says Jobling, ‘rather than having to allow 6-12 months to develop a seminar. Longer term, we are looking at developing different and complementary methods of delivering training, providing more on soft skills, and looking at the needs of members at different stages in their careers.’

Farquharson highlights two areas where Wilmington is seeing demand growing. The first is training around law firm finance. ‘With the recent law firm failures and banks taking a haircut, partners are facing some tough questions,’ he says, ‘so understanding the financial side is crucial.’

The second is from practitioners, particularly those in criminal, personal injury and family, who are taking their three- to four-day in-depth ‘boot camps’ in employment, trusts, probate, commercial contracts and intellectual property so they can switch practice area.

BPP, which is building up its online learning module, is also developing a post-course reflective element to its training. ‘The LETR wants courses to show they have actually improved people’s skills or knowledge,’ Hellawell says. ‘As an industry, we have probably been poor at capturing the developmental processes which seminars could have generated.’

It is also trimming its current programme of 250 courses and reconfiguring it into a more ‘palatable’ package for hard-pressed practitioners with fewer full-day courses and more half-day seminars and workshops. The ‘hard law’ content will go online so it can be studied either as a standalone product or as a preliminary to a workshop.

The importance of career development has prompted the Forum of Insurance Lawyers (FOIL) to launch Tomorrow’s FOIL to help lawyers with less than five years’ PQE build their professional skills.

FOIL’s publications and attendance at its events are already accredited for CPD points. However, CEO Laurence Besemer says that if the SRA consultation concludes there should be a stricter, more objective, more tightly policed CPD regime, FOIL will ‘beef up its offering’.

Drawing up a scheme that encourages the best from practitioners will be as crucial.

Ultimately, there are plenty of ways of getting cheap CPD. At the height of the recession, ‘when people felt their world was falling apart, they didn’t care about quality, they just needed hours,’ says Farquharson. ‘Now people are appreciating that you get what you pay for.’

There is certainly a ‘value judgment’ for the SRA to make in how far it prescribes what practitioners must do, says Slorach. ‘But, from a consumer protection point of view, a regulator has to show there is an effective system in place.’

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist